Pundits for Hire
generals- turned-paid military analysts were
presences during the war in Iraq, the latest example of the expert-on-retainer trend in
TV news. Supporters say this is a good way
to enrich viewers’ understanding of major stories. But some critics argue that there’s a serious downside.
By Alina Tugend
As talk of war in Iraq heated up earlier this year, so did the battle of the television military analysts.
Alina Tugend is a writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.
And when war broke out, the broadcast networks and cable channels had amassed enough high-ranking officers to stage their own invasion.
NBC claimed, among many others, retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of operations during the first Persian Gulf War. ABC boasted four retired generals and a lieutenant general as part of its 19-member team of experts for the war.
Playing for CBS was retired Gen. William "Buck" Kernan, former commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, and Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, who retired in March as supreme allied commander Europe. Former Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who was the top NATO commander during the Kosovo war (and is often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate), was one of CNN's stars. Maj. Gen. Burton Moore, former director of Central Command during Desert Storm, was part of Fox News Channel's group of analysts.
These military experts--and the TV networks that hired them--see their jobs as providing specialized knowledge about strategy, weapons and tactics that most journalists don't have.
"The media has had little exposure to the military and military history," says Col. John Warden, who was the Air Force's deputy director for strategy, doctrine and warfighting during the 1991 gulf war and a paid expert with PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and MSNBC. "To have someone make sense of what we're seeing is helpful."
Although the news programs are inundated with wartime military experts, paid analysts on every subject have become TV news staples.
Fox News Channel, which may have more paid analysts than any other news outlet, counts more than 50 experts on its payroll, including Linda Chavez, the former U.S. commissioner on civil rights; former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro; and ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
News producers say their audiences gain insightful viewpoints and a better understanding of various issues by hearing from regular experts--whether they are lawyers, retired military personnel, academics or former politicians.
Some journalists, however, don't believe the pros of such expertise outweigh the cons. Critics charge that the practice restricts debate, leads to overhyped stories and has opened the door to a type of "checkbook journalism" American news organizations traditionally have shunned.
Although the experts-for-hire phenomenon has mushroomed over the past decade, Joseph Angotti, chairman of the broadcast program at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a former NBC senior vice president, says he believes that the practice first came to the fore when NBC paid Henry Kissinger to be interviewed for two one-hour shows immediately after he left public office in 1977.
"That was a controversy--whether NBC had sold out by buying Kissinger," says Angotti. "The deal was not done by the news division, but by the president of the network. Those of us in the news division felt it was crossing the line. How were we going to be critical of him?"
Joe Foote, director of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, says that "historically, there was an ironclad rule that networks didn't pay [for interviews], unlike the British.... But this slipped under the radar screen. I assume because it was just one step removed from paying your own journalist."
The real bonanza for paid experts came with the launch of 24-hour cable news channels.
"The explosion of cable news created a seeming insatiable demand for experts who can make all kinds of pronouncements on all kinds of things," says Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz.
CNN's rise to fame with its exclusive round-the-clock coverage of the 1991 Persian Gulf War was one catalyst. Then cable's Fox News Channel launched in 1996, and it required experts to gain credibility and fill its newshole, says Bill Shine, Fox's network executive producer.
"We needed people on staff to talk about the major events of the day," Shine says. "As we began to produce more, we found it quite useful. And it's certainly increased since we went on the air, because the actual number of hours of news has increased. We used to have a lot of taped programming on the weekends. But after 9/11, we have live shows on the weekends."
NBC (along with sister networks CNBC and MSNBC) says it has more than 30 experts under contract--a number that has grown over the past five years, according to NBC News spokeswoman Allison Gollust.
As the number of cable news outlets increased, so, too, did the competition for valuable sources, leading networks to offer more monetary contracts to pundits. Putting analysts on the payroll eliminates the constant scramble for guests. "With the proliferation of cable outlets, there are a lot more places for people to go," Gollust says. "Therefore we have found that we have to make some more solid arrangements with people."
As early as 1999, when AJR last wrote about retired military officers turned TV pundits, few had exclusive contracts with the networks. Most wandered from one news outlet to another, offering their insights for free (see "The Pundit Corps," June 1999). Now, such "unilaterals" are hard to come by.
CBS News spokeswoman Andie Silvers says when looking for experts to comment on the war, her network wanted officers with a lot of stars and very recent military experience. "We're looking for recently retired military analysts due to their contacts and their knowledge," she says. "And the higher the rank the better."
"A lot of news networks are vying for the same generals," Silvers adds.
For TV executives, the rationale is clear-cut: Journalists can't know everything; they need experts willing to be on call--and often for days, weeks or months. Therefore those people deserve to be paid for their knowledge and their time.
And what's in it for the experts? Money and ego play a role, as well as a genuine desire to help the public understand complicated situations. But some are surprised at the ease with which many of the military analysts--who once might have distrusted the media--have slipped into the role of quasi-journalists.
"When I was a young officer in Vietnam, I thought of [journalists] as the enemy," says Warden, an MSNBC and PBS expert. "Then I realized that if I don't talk to them, I don't have an opportunity to present our own view. So I talked to them and found out that although when there is something complex, they may not always get it right, there is very little attempt at deliberate distortion."
For Ralston, it was not just a matter of getting on television, but of joining a particular organization. "I had others approach me, but over the years I knew and respected people at CBS," he says. "I felt they were objective."
Although those in the news business are tight-lipped about exactly how much experts are paid, they acknowledge the amounts vary widely. "Everyone's different," says Robert Barnett, a senior partner with the Washington, D.C., law firm Williams & Connolly, who represents about 25 TV news contributors. "Some people have multiyear deals, some have contracts for as little as six months. Some have a base salary, some have a per-appearance fee, and some have a combination of both."
For example, many military experts, like Warden, were hired on three-month or even shorter-term contracts.
A relatively obscure academic can make about $30,000 a year as an expert, while a name commodity might easily pull in over $100,000, say those familiar with the field.
Bidding wars over top names are not unusual, says Barnett, who recalls one client who had offers from five cable and broadcast networks. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly common for sought-after experts to hire lawyers or agents.
Cinny Kennard, a former CBS News correspondent who teaches at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, says getting an agent is part of the business. "A brand-new cottage industry has erupted in the wake of the 24/7 cable stations," she says.
Besides wanting to get the best experts, network producers admit that it's equally important to keep those commodities away from competitors. "Exclusivity is one of the goals," says Cathie Levine, a spokeswoman for ABC News.
There's exclusivity, however, and there's exclusivity. For example, Ronald Brownstein, a Los Angeles Times political correspondent and a paid CNN analyst for the past five years, says he is barred only from appearing on another cable news program--not on the broadcast networks or PBS. "I think that's pretty common," Brownstein says.
Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, has been a paid expert for ABC since March 2002. He says he initially signed a six-month contract that banned him from appearing on any other television news program outside of ABC or PBS. "I found it very constraining," Gerges says. "I was paid a fee to sit and wait and was not really participating in the broader debate."
So when he renegotiated his contract, he insisted--and says ABC "generously agreed"--that he be allowed to appear elsewhere. Now Gerges can hold forth anywhere except on the competing broadcast networks.
PBS doesn't play the exclusivity game. Of course, "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" generally doesn't pay for experts, except for journalists from other outlets appearing in a reporting capacity, according to Lester Crystal, the show's executive producer.
However, since the war in Iraq, "The NewsHour" hired four paid experts, each representing different areas of the military.
The reason for the switch in policy? "Competition is stiff for a limited pool of individuals," acknowledges Sara Hope Franks, a spokeswoman for MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. "We want to have our picks in place, and give our viewers what they need."
Nonetheless, Crystal says commercial stations' policies of "putting experts on retainer" has hurt "The NewsHour's" ability to get guests. Occasionally people who had been on "The NewsHour" were then snatched up by other news organizations, and they wouldn't be able to appear on the PBS show again. "Sometimes people we would love to have on a program suddenly weren't available to us," Crystal says.
But Crystal doesn't criticize the practice. Although he wishes paying experts wasn't necessary, he says, "one could argue, why provide something without being compensated? Stations [would be] saying, 'We want you to be with us six hours a day but we're not going to pay you.' "
And he says he has no fear of running out of good guests for his program. "This is a big country with a lot of smart people," Crystal says. In fact, the upside of losing some sources, he says, is that "we might get some fresh faces and voices."
The use of paid consultants has become so ubiquitous so quickly that few have questioned the practice. And that is a problem, says Richard Schwarzlose, a professor of journalism specializing in ethics at Northwestern's Medill School.
"What happens when money is involved--when you pay for information?" he asks. "If I were one of those consultants, I'd do everything to keep that sucker going. I have something that gives me access, and I get paid for it."
The danger, Schwarzlose and others say, is that consultants might be tempted to pump up stories to keep their TV gigs. "The lawyers and retired generals and ex-detectives all understand how the game is played," the Post's Kurtz says. "Television wants colorful and provocative commentary, whether or not the facts support it. Many people benefit. It's not just an ego trip, but the exposure of being on lots of cable shows--[the experts] try to serve up what the medium seems to crave."
Brownstein, the CNN consultant, and Gerges, the Middle Eastern studies professor, say they have never been pushed to say anything they didn't want to. "I have never felt any kind of pressure," Gerges says. "My only complaint is that they don't use me as much as they should." Gerges says that as part of his consultancy, on his own initiative, he often suggests to the ABC News producer stories that he finds in Arab newspapers "in order to broaden the scope of the debate."
Arizona State University's Foote has mixed feelings about the practice. "You've got a stable of consultants, and you're going to go to them to get your money's worth. I think it's a good thing, because there is better expertise than there was in the 1960s and 1970s, when there was a bunch of generalists. But it's a bad thing, because there's a certain self-protection of consultants to say something relevant and cogent" even if they don't know enough about certain aspects of a story. "They've got a vested interest."
And often a certain sympathy with one side, Kurtz notes. Although he finds that retired military experts offer "a valuable perspective...they are, not surprisingly, consistently pro-Pentagon and respectful of their former compatriots. I think this undercuts their effectiveness somewhat."
Of course, not all experts fit that mold. In late March NBC's retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey wasn't shy in criticizing the Bush administration's war plan, questioning whether there were enough U.S. forces in Iraq to get the job done. CNN's former Gen. Wesley K. Clark echoed those sentiments. The TV talk, as well as similar concerns voiced by active military officers, led Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers to strongly defend the plan at a lengthy press conference. Myers called the chatter "bogus" and "harmful to our troops." (See "The TV Battalion")
Experts clearly come with their own, and sometimes surprising, viewpoints. And Brownstein argues that regular TV analysts with certain expertise--and even certain biases--can be compared to those who write op-eds for a newspaper. The television news programs "want a consistent voice as well as bringing in new people," he says. Paid experts help provide "reliability and branding." (CNN, for example, effectively branded Clark as its main military expert.)
But Boston Globe media writer Mark Jurkowitz says such consistency hasn't been universally achieved. Most television news programs, he says, trotted out an ever-rotating crop of military experts to discuss the war. "I think it's very confusing to viewers to sort out military analysts," says Jurkowitz. "I think the ideal would be to have one bona fide military expert to brand the station."
The usual complaint from critics is that hiring experts creates little incentive for news programs to search out different views and novel ideas.
Kurtz says a similar tendency--what he calls "the Rolodex syndrome"--occurs at newspapers and magazines, even though people are not paid for their interviews. "Print people call many of the same people over and over," he says.
Medill's Schwarzlose says that paying people could become a slippery slope, where more and more sources will expect to get money in exchange for appearances.
And what do viewers think of the practice? Better yet, are they even aware that some people are paid for their views and some people aren't?
All the TV news organizations interviewed for this story except PBS say an on-screen graphic identifies paid experts as consultants or analysts--which should tip off the audience that that person is on the payroll. "I think the way we ID it, as 'CBS News consultant,' it's clear they're being paid," says CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius. "People are generally quite savvy."
Veteran CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite says that it would be "well-advised if networks were candid enough to label everyone who is paid--it would be highly honorable, but a little much to expect."
Those who don't like the idea of experts being paid shouldn't blame the television networks, Shine says. He puts the onus on the experts. "I would say the beef is with the contributors themselves. No one says, 'Keep the money, I don't want it.' "
Well, almost no one. Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner, received several monetary offers from television networks to talk to them exclusively on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. He declined, and instead during that week granted about 150 interviews to newspapers and TV and radio stations around the world.
Since then more TV news operations have pursued Kerik, offering him contracts in exchange for sole access. He continues to reject his suitors.
Kerik says it would be wrong to grant his expertise to only one news outlet. "Someone in my position, who worked in public service for 25, 26 years, brings to the table a wealth of information that can benefit others," he says. "I still have an obligation to the public, even though my tenure is over."
And then there is Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corp. and a much sought-after guest on security issues. He says several TV networks have asked him to join their experts lists--and he has refused to become a consultant. "I'm concerned it would obligate me to offer public commentary at times or on specific subjects [on] which either I don't feel I have the expertise, or I don't feel would be appropriate," he says. "I don't want to be put in the position of play-by-play. I would prefer to step back for a moment to get the facts. If you're sitting in a studio with someone firing questions at you, it is a perilous situation. Right now I often say 'I don't know.' If I was being paid, they might say, 'Gee, is that what we're paying this guy for?' "
For instance, Jenkins says that although he appeared on television the day of and those following the September 11 attacks, when producers called him to comment on the Washington sniper case, he refused.
"Some of it has to do with promiscuity, I suppose," he says. "I don't aspire to be a talking head on every dark incident that happens. And unless you have something that is useful or inspiring, why just rev the engines?"
On the other hand, the military experts say that they serve a valuable purpose by trying to sort out an often confusing and contradictory story.
Ralston says he signed on as an expert because "I thought I could add some value to the process--if the American people get their facts, they can judge."
Besides the punditry, can these former bigwigs use their contacts at the Pentagon to provide scoops to their news organizations?
"When you get right down to it, you have some responsibility to do news development, and I frequently do just that," says Warden. But, he says, he's not going to get any information that the Pentagon doesn't want to get out.
"You can call your best friend," he notes wryly, "and he's not going to tell you anything he's not supposed to."###